Career Development - Julie Winkle Giulioni

I remember the day everything changed around how I perceived my role as a learning and development (L&D) professional. Early in my career as an instructional designer, I developed a training intervention for account associates in our organization. My extensive needs analysis involved focus groups, job shadowing and countless subject matter expert (SME) interviews over several months. The outcome was a beautiful program. Rich in content. Creative. Engaging. Actionable. 

And completely ineffective. I couldn’t understand how, after so much attention to the training audience and its needs, I had delivered such disappointing results. After licking my wounds for a few days, I set out to discover what had undermined my implementation. Much to my surprise, the lackluster results had little to do with the account associates I’d trained — but rather their managers whom I’d ignored. As it turns out, it didn’t matter how wonderful the learning was if leaders weren’t prepared to support it. 

Fast forward 30 years, and this dynamic remains a challenge. But now it’s taken on new levels of complexity as: 

  • Training is more customized to the individual. 
  • Resources are drawn from various sources, many of which live outside of the organization’s ecosystem. 
  • Learners take greater ownership of their learning journeys. 


So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the results of a survey I recently administered to 100+ L&D professionals felt like déjà vu. Echoing themes from decades ago, those in the field today continue to report challenges associated with securing the leadership support required to optimize L&D outcomes. They report that the four most common barriers they battle (in this order) include leaders not: 

  1. Having enough time. 
  2. Being sufficiently familiar with the content. 
  3. Believing in the content. 
  4. Knowing what to do. 

The good news is those same survey respondents also shared a variety of tactics that can help busy and skeptical managers enable teams to get the most from their learning investment.  

Topping their list of best practices is: “Communicate the line of sight between the content and business outcomes.” Connecting the learning initiative directly to what matters most to leaders — their business goals, key performance indicators (KPIs), objectives or priorities — is a quick and effective way to capture leaders’ attention. It can also serve to put into perspective how a small act of support on their part can serve as a lever, delivering significant business results.

Those who responded to the survey also offered a variety of specific ways they make it easy for leaders to do the right — and effective — thing. Offering skimmable summaries, lists of new behaviors to watch for, and pre- and post-learning conversation guides can bring leaders up to speed and reinforce learning. 

But as the volume of learning escalates in response to upskilling and reskilling demands — and as the sources of learning become more distributed — L&D professionals may need to rethink the most effective vehicle for gaining leadership support. Might this be a task better suited to learners themselves, who know what they need to learn and what’s needed to make it happen? 

Ushering in a self-driven leadership support paradigm driven by learners, though, only works when people are prepared to advocate for their learning. This means arming them with skills and resources like the ability to connect new skills with critical business outcomes, describe the specific behaviors they aspire to, negotiate for resources and articulate the kind of feedback and coaching that will be most helpful.  

Thirty years later, the challenge remains. But perhaps it’s time for me to again rethink my role in delivering learning outcomes — this time in a way that engages and empowers learning as partners in securing new levels of leadership support.